Conflict-related Sexual Violence: Room for Nuance?

Violence against women has been at the forefront recently, with International Women’s Day 2013 coming hand in hand with a reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and following Eve Ensler’s latest V-Day campaign, OneBillionRising, in February.

Brownmiller's Classic, 1975

Brownmiller’s Classic, 1975

The first International Women’s Day was thirty-eight years ago, in 1975. That year, Angola and Lebanon saw the beginning of civil war. Indonesia invaded East Timor. The newly formed Democratic Kampuchea invaded the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Susan Brownmiller published her controversial book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, challenging definitions of rape and sparking debate about sexual violence perpetrated against women.

Our understanding about violence against women has matured since 1975. It is no longer revolutionary to discuss how different forms of violence are perpetrated against women’s bodies and minds, or how there are countless contexts and geographies in which those violations take place. Our understanding about sexual violence related to armed conflict, though, is still quite young.

Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Credit: Reuters)

Zainab Hawa Bangura, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Credit: Reuters)

The need for a more nuanced, cross-disciplinary dialogue about conflict-related sexual violence was the focus of the historic Missing Peace Symposium that took place in Washington, DC, from February 14-16, 2013. Together with the United States Institute of Peace, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law gathered over 200 academics, civil society members, policymakers, and military officials working to end conflict-related sexual violence.  We were joined by key figures such as UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence In Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, former Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, and the ICC Prosecutor’s Special Adviser on International Criminal Law Prosecution Strategies, Patricia Viseur Sellers.

Our goals for the Symposium were three-fold: a.) to share what we know about conflict-related sexual and violence – and how we actually know it, b.) to identify what we still need to learn in order to improve protection, prevention, and accountability, and c.) to connect the dots between researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders to promote effective communication, transfer of knowledge, and coherent response.

One of the primary messages from the conference was that, like violence against women generally, conflict-related sexual violence is not a monolith. Eradication requires first understanding its nuance.

For example, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, there were 28 interstate and intrastate armed conflicts in 2011. While not all of those conflicts were marked by sexual violence, there are increasing reports documenting its occurrence.

However, as Dara Cohen,  Amelia Hoover Green, and Elisabeth Jean Wood note in a special report published for the Symposium, there is wide variation when it comes to who perpetrates sexual violence in armed conflict, when it occurs, and why. Wood’s research in particular illuminates the fact that not all fighting groups engage in “widespread, systematic” sexual violence, as would constitute a crime against humanity. Her research also notes examples of asymmetry between opposing groups’ perpetration in a single conflict, as well as occasional fluctuation within a single group’s conduct over time.

We need to understand why some groups do and others do not engage in sexual violence during conflict in order to a.) counter some commanders’ claims that control over their troops was impossible, and b.) develop strategies to prevent perpetration of sexual violence by other fighting groups.

Symposium presenters also shared new data that challenges traditional notions about perpetrators and victims. This included findings not just about male victimization, but about female perpetration of sexual violence in armed conflict. See for example, population-based surveys implemented by Lynn Lawry’s teams in Liberia and eastern DRC.

These data must be placed on the table with the rest of what we know, so policy and program implications can be assessed in proper context. They may also help us grapple with the perhaps false dichotomy of perpetrator versus victim: How do we address sexual crimes committed by child soldiers? How do we develop support services for individuals forced at gunpoint to rape their own parents or siblings?  We are starting to collect the data. Policy and programming must now follow.

Finally, we must not overlook some obvious dynamics. First, we need to better understand the continuum of conflict-related violence generally – how it may vary in nature, prevalence, and motivation during active conflict, in flight from conflict, and then in displacement or resettlement. Second, we should not lose sight of the critical role gender plays in the perpetration, experience, and interpretation of sexual violence in these contexts.  Evidence-based understanding of these dynamics remains weak.

The platitudes often associated with conflict-related sexual violence – its strategic use as a “weapon of war,” its inevitability as a “collateral consequence,” or the notion that it can only end if war itself ends – are falling away to more nuanced understandings emerging from research and practice. This is where we will find strategies that might eliminate sexual violence from wartime violence.

The US Institute of Peace (Credit: USIP)

The US Institute of Peace (Credit: USIP)

However, to design an effective evidence-based roadmap for policymaking and programming, Western researchers must be cognizant of how–and why–we conduct our studies. Symposium participants from all over the world charged academics to be mindful of the vast positional difference between researching and “being researched.” Aside from heeding all obvious ethical considerations, we must find ways – large and small – to ensure that local partners and study participants are meaningfully engaged and have full access to research findings. We acknowledged that “how we do” is just as critical as “what we do.”

Much has changed in the thirty-eight years since the first International Women’s Day. However, conflict-related sexual violence persists. Our understanding of how it happens, to whom, and why is evolving rapidly. With better information and communication of this new knowledge, strategies for prevention, protection, and accountability will improve.

- Kim Thuy Seelinger (Director, Sexual Violence Program, Human Rights Center) and Michelle Ben-David (UC Berkeley School of Law, ’13)

Note: A policy brief summarizing the Symposium dialogue and next steps is forthcoming, and will be available on the Human Rights Center and USIP websites. Video archives of the sessions are viewable here.

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